What’s at Stake at the Supreme Court for People with Disabilities? The Arc Reviews Judge Gorsuch’s Record on Disability Rights

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director of Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel

On January 31, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is set for March 20. A close review of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions pertaining to people with disabilities reveals a jurist with an exceptionally narrow view of the protections offered by federal disability rights laws—an approach that has led to deeply troubling results for members of The Arc in the Tenth Circuit’s jurisdiction. While Judge Gorsuch is a staunch proponent of the inherent dignity of all human beings, including those with disabilities, during his tenure on the Tenth Circuit he has not been a champion for robust enforcement of disability rights laws that are so crucial to enabling individuals with disabilities to lead dignified lives in the community, free from discrimination.

In cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act in which Judge Gorsuch authored the majority or concurring opinion, he almost always ruled against the plaintiff with a disability. Perhaps the most common thread uniting these opinions is Judge Gorsuch’s strictly textualist approach to interpreting laws. This approach leads him to frequently disregard legislative history and Congressional intent in favor of deciphering the “objective” meaning of the law’s text in a vacuum, ultimately resulting in very narrow interpretations of the protections guaranteed by federal disability rights laws.

For example, in Hwang v. Kansas State University (2014), the plaintiff, a professor who had been employed by the university for 15 years, requested to extend her 6-month medical leave for a finite period. Due to a cancer diagnosis and weakened immune system, she sought to avoid a flu epidemic that arose on campus. When her employer refused to make an exception to its 6-month leave policy, the plaintiff sued, alleging disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act. Judge Gorsuch found for the defendant employer on the grounds that, as a matter of law, a leave of more than 6 months was not a reasonable accommodation. In this opinion, Judge Gorsuch demonstrated a troubling view of disability accommodations in the workplace, implying that the plaintiff employee was seeking not to work and should therefore be funneled into the public benefits system rather than the workplace:

Ms. Hwang’s is a…problem other forms of social security aim to address. The Rehabilitation Act seeks to prevent employers from callously denying reasonable accommodations that permit otherwise qualified disabled persons to work—not to turn employers into safety net providers for those who cannot work.

Remarkably, Judge Gorsuch affirmed dismissal of the case prior to fact discovery, thereby precluding the plaintiff from the ability to present evidence. He also failed to engage in the individualized inquiry required in such cases, in conflict with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and four other circuit courts (in addition to a prior conflicting decision within the Tenth Circuit). An amicus brief on behalf of several disability rights advocacy groups requesting a rehearing referred to the decision as “unprecedented.”

Another standout case is Thompson R2-JSchool District v. Luke P. (2008), in which Judge Gorsuch articulated an extraordinarily low standard for educational benefit that is now under review before the U.S. Supreme Court in another case arising from the Tenth Circuit, Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. Re-1. In Luke P., the hearing officer, administrative law judge, and the district court found for the student, noting that the district had failed to provide a free appropriate public education as demonstrated by the student’s inability to generalize the skills he learned at school to settings outside of school. These decisions were based on the notion that this level of minimal progress towards IEP goals was not enough to constitute a meaningful educational benefit under the IDEA. Judge Gorsuch disagreed:

[A] school district is not required to provide every service that would benefit a student if it has found a formula that can reasonably be expected to generate some progress on that student’s IEP goals…Rather, [the IDEA] much more modestly calls for the creation of individualized programs reasonably calculated to enable the student to make some progress towards the goals within that program.

In finding for the school district, Judge Gorsuch rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the purpose of the IDEA, as stated clearly by Congress, was to help students with disabilities achieve more meaningful progress that led to a greater possibility of independent living. Despite legislative history to the contrary, Judge Gorsuch noted that independence was not an outcome-oriented guarantee of the law. In November, along with a large coalition of disability advocates, The Arc submitted an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging this same low standard employed by the Tenth Circuit in the Endrew F. case. In another IDEA case, A.F. v. Espanola Public Schools (2015), where Judge Gorsuch found for the school district, the dissenting judge noted that the outcome “was clearly not the intent of Congress and…harms the interest of the children that IDEA was intended to protect.”

Judge Gorsuch has also demonstrated a narrow view of class actions, a crucial tool for individuals with disabilities to enforce their rights in court. For example, in Shook v. Board of County Commissioners of County of El Pas(2008), Judge Gorsuch affirmed the denial of class certification to a group of plaintiffs alleging that jail conditions for prisoners with psychiatric disabilities violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual treatment. In so finding, Judge Gorsuch reasoned that it would be too difficult to craft appropriate systemic relief for the class as a whole given the variety of psychiatric disabilities represented in the class.

These decisions are more than just abstract discussions of legal theories – they have real-life consequences for The Arc’s constituents. In particular, Judge Gorsuch’s effectively pro-school district stance has been devastating for students with disabilities and special education advocates in the Tenth Circuit. Advocates from AdvocacyDenver (a chapter of The Arc), noted that the Luke P. decision was “seismic” for students with disabilities in Colorado, leading school districts to believe that they had a champion in the Tenth Circuit. This dramatically changed their approach to IEP disputes and empowered them to act to the detriment of students with disabilities under the belief that they would almost always prevail in court. Overall, advocates from the chapter noted that the Tenth Circuit offers some of the weakest protections for students with disabilities and their families in the country and that Judge Gorsuch’s decisions on the IDEA have had deeply problematic results for special education advocates and students with disabilities in Colorado.

On the other hand, Judge Gorsuch, like The Arc, is a staunch opponent of physician-assisted suicide. While he has not yet addressed this issue in court, Judge Gorsuch authored a 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, in which he notes that: “[a]ll human beings are intrinsically valuable…any line we might draw between human beings for purposes of determining who must live and who may die ultimately seems to devolve into an arbitrary exercise of picking out which particular instrumental capacities one especially likes.” Among other reasons for his opposition, Judge Gorsuch links the practice to the history of societal devaluation of people with disabilities embodied by the eugenics movement, flagging the inherent risk for abuse the system poses for people with disabilities.

Judge Gorsuch’s views on this subject and his recognition of the inherent dignity of people with disabilities reflect an important area of common ground. The question is whether his jurisprudence will ever link this belief in inherent dignity with a robust protection of rights that is so crucial to the ability of people with disabilities to learn, work, and lead dignified lives in the community among their peers. During his tenure on the Tenth Circuit, the answer to this question has largely been no.

More information about Judge Gorsuch’s majority and concurring opinions relating to disability rights can be found here.

The Arc on House Health Care Bill: “Medicaid Will Be Decimated”

Washington, DC – The Arc released the following statement on the draft legislation that repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and pays for it by decimating Medicaid, a program critical to the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities:

“This legislation ends Medicaid as we know it. If it is enacted, Medicaid will no longer be a state and federal partnership – the federal government will cap what it provides, leaving the states to pick up the pieces. It will have a dire impact on the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who rely on Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act for their health care, community supports, and as a way to live independently in their communities.

“Thanks to the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, millions of people, including people with disabilities, their family members, and their support professionals, have gained access to health coverage. Lives have been saved because people have had access to affordable, comprehensive health coverage. The tax credits and changes to health savings accounts proposed in this bill are not adequate to meet needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities or those with chronic health conditions. And we have no idea how much this approach will cost, or how many people will lose coverage as Congress is rushing this bill through before the budget experts can do the math on the price tag in dollars and impact on lives.

“The bottom line is that under this legislation, Medicaid will be decimated. People will lose vital benefits and services that support their basic human right to a life in the community. It will turn back the clock on the progress we have made as a society over the last 65 years. It’s morally reprehensible, and our nation cannot let this happen,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

The Arc Applauds U.S. Supreme Court Decision Allowing Independent Disability Discrimination Claims Against School Districts

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director, Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel

The Arc applauds this decision which removes important barriers for students with disabilities seeking redress under the ADA and Section 504. The Arc has long advocated for the rights of students and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live their lives free from discrimination and with necessary accommodations, to which they are entitled under federal law. This decision is an important step in ensuring robust enforcement and protection of those rights.

In a major win for students with disabilities and their families, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan on Wednesday in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools that allows students to bring lawsuits directly under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) without requesting an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when their claim is not related to the adequacy of their education. The IDEA requires schools to provide specialized instruction and related services to eligible students to help them make progress on their educational goals. In contrast, the ADA and Section 504 prohibit discrimination of people with disabilities of all ages, both in and out of schools, in any public facility or federally funded program. This decision eliminates certain roadblocks that have prevented students from seeking relief directly in federal court when their claims involve disability discrimination under the ADA or Section 504, rather than their educational services and supports under the IDEA. Attorneys from The Arc attended oral arguments in this case before the U.S. Supreme Court last October.

Ehlena Fry, the plaintiff in the case, has cerebral palsy and uses a service dog, Wonder, to assist her with daily activities, such as “retrieving dropped items, helping her balance when she uses her walker, opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, helping her take off her coat, [and] helping her transfer to and from the toilet.” When her parents asked the school to allow Ehlena to use Wonder in her kindergarten classroom, the school refused. Ehlena’s individualized education program (IEP) under the IDEA included use of a human aide, and the school argued that the aide met all of Ehlena’s “physical and academic needs,” rendering Wonder unnecessary. As a result, Ehlena’s parents removed her from the school and filed a disability discrimination complaint under the ADA and Section 504 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

OCR investigated and concluded that the school had discriminated against Ehlena by denying her use of her service dog, just as it would be discrimination to require a student who uses a wheelchair or a blind student to be carried or led around by a teacher or aide rather than permitting the student to use a guide dog or a cane. Following OCR’s investigation and findings, the school agreed to allow Ehlena to attend school with Wonder, but the family chose to enroll her in another school for fear of retaliation. The family also filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school system alleging disability discrimination and seeking monetary damages under the ADA and Section 504 for the school’s previous refusal to reasonably accommodate Ehlena’s use of her service animal. The lawsuit was dismissed by both the federal district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals who concluded that any claims that were educational in nature had to undergo the administrative hearing process in the IDEA before they could be filed in federal court.

In finding in favor of Ehlena and her family, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that students do not have to exhaust the administrative proceedings required in the IDEA when the essence of their claim is not about the IDEA’s free and appropriate public education (FAPE) requirement, as was the case here. The Court’s opinion offered some general guidance on how to identify whether the IDEA’s FAPE requirement is the essence of a lawsuit against a school, distinguishing between a student who uses a wheelchair suing a school for not having an accessible ramp (which is not about FAPE) and a student with a learning disability suing the school for not providing math tutoring (which is about FAPE). A concurring opinion from Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, criticized this part of the Court’s guidance as creating confusion for the lower courts. In addition, because the Frys were not claiming that Ehlena was denied a FAPE under the IDEA, the Court explicitly chose not to address the question of whether students must exhaust the IDEA’s administrative hearing process when the complaint does allege a denial of FAPE but the specific remedy being requested is not available under the IDEA, such as monetary damages.

Though the decision in Fry leaves some questions unanswered, it does eliminate certain roadblocks that have prevented students from seeking relief directly in federal court when their claims involve disability discrimination under the ADA or Section 504, rather than their educational services and supports under the IDEA.

The Arc’s Responds To Chicago Tribune Series on Deaths, Abuse and Neglect in Illinois: “A Wakeup Call for Investment, Reform, and Better Wages”

The Chicago Tribune has recently released news articles detailing the systemic problems in Illinois that have led to cases of death, abuse, and neglect of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc of the United States released the following statement on what the news series has uncovered.

“The Chicago Tribune series on deaths, abuse, and neglect of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) is startling and should serve as a wakeup call to the state to invest in the community system, reform its oversight process, and pay workers in this field a wage that reflects the life and death work they take on day in and day out.

“Clearly, the oversight system in Illinois has been broken for a long time, and the public outrage generated by this news series is warranted. What we can hope is that the incidents of abuse and neglect highlighted in this piece will help galvanize positive change not only in Illinois but across the country.

“When we have a system that provides wages that don’t reflect the importance of the work carried out, and training that doesn’t prepare people for the situations they will face, we are putting lives at risk. There are many facets to this problem, and The Arc will continue to work with families, organizations serving people with disabilities, government agencies, and other stakeholders to end horrific mistreatment of people with I/DD.

“Illinois is the state with the highest rates of institutionalization based on population. Without proper support for the programs, services, and staff that are so vital to the health and wellbeing of individuals with I/DD in the community, we can’t fix existing problems. This system, like many across the country, is flawed and we need real investment in the programs that individuals with I/DD rely on to move forward. System change must be made a priority so we can focus on what really matters – quality of life for people with disabilities,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.

The Arc of Illinois is a leading advocate for reforms in the state. Read Executive Director Tony Paulauski’s letter to the editor and the President of the chapter’s board of directors Terri Devine’s letter to the editor.

Zach’s Big Move Out: An Update on the Morris Family

zachLast year, The Arc published a blog by Ray Morris, founder of Dads 4 Special Kids and father to Zach and Tyler. The piece highlighted the enormous impact Zach, who has intellectual and developmental disabilities, has made on Ray and the Morris home. The Arc’s readers will be happy to learn that Zach is transitioning through another stage all young adults face: venturing out of their family home, and into the wider world.

Zach’s transition out of the family home began while he was participating in a group at his adult day program. During this time, he met John and Lisa, a couple that has dedicated their lives to caring for adults with disabilities and have been certified to run an Adult Developmental Home (ADH). John and Lisa offered Zach a place to live at their ADH. After many discussions, Zach and his family worked with John and Lisa to make his move and path toward adulthood smoother for everyone.

Like many young adults who have just moved out on their own, Zach is busy soaking up his surroundings and his “personality has flourished” according to his dad. Some of Zach’s new-found hobbies include attending Professional Arena Football games and exploring the Phoenix Home & Garden Show. Zach’s parents and brother, Tyler, are thrilled that Zach is becoming more independent and discovering a new chapter in his life.

The entire Morris family has been changed by Zach’s move out of the family home. Zach’s younger brother, Tyler, recently celebrated his wedding in France. This was a particularly special occasion, for it was also the first family vacation for the Morris’ in over a decade. Ray and Kelly are also enjoying everyday pleasures such as having their house all to themselves and watching their favorite T.V. show without any distractions. Yet, Ray is quick to admit Zach’s absence also highlights “how [their] lives were structured around [his] care” for 27 years. Realizing that they are no longer their son’s primary caregivers is “bittersweet.”

Like any parents, Ray and Kelly have navigated this experience with some anxiety and fear. Ray sometimes wonders if encouraging Zach to pursue his own life at the ADH home was the best decision. However, Ray remembers “It’s allowing and trusting that the decision to transition Zach to an ADH home will provide him a more fulfilled, independent life.” Kelly shares Ray’s concerns and has admitted that the “instinct to protect and hold on to him [has] battled with the reality of what was best for Zach.” All the worry is replaced with reassurance and peace when Ray and Kelly see Zach “laughing and having fun” with his new group of friends and care providers.

With Zach now settled into a routine, embracing all of the changes has become a bit easier. These days the Morris’ are looking toward the future, and The Arc wishes them the best!

Time to Check Your Health Insurance

If you are uninsured or looking for affordable health insurance, now is the time for you to look! During “open enrollment” you can purchase private health insurance through the marketplace in each state. Depending on your income, you may be eligible for assistance with your health insurance costs.

If you currently have insurance through the marketplace, you should look at your current plan and determine if it will continue to meet your needs, or select a better plan. If you do not take action, you will be automatically re-enrolled in your current plan or a similar plan. You should carefully review all health insurance notices and updates. Re-enrollment provides an important opportunity to report any changes to your income. If you income has increased, reporting changes to the marketplace may help you avoid paying future penalties.

2017 Open Enrollment
November 1, 2016
Open enrollment begins

December 15, 2016
Enroll before this date to have coverage January 1, 2017

January 31, 2017
Open enrollment ends

Why you should check your coverage:

  • Even if you like your health plan, new plans may be available and premiums or cost sharing may have changed since last year.
  • Even if your income has not changed, you could be eligible for more financial assistance.

If you have a disability or a health condition, pay attention to possible changes:

  • Are a broad range of health care providers included in the health plan’s network of providers?
  • Are there enough medical specialists in the network to meet your needs?
  • Are needed medications included in the plan’s list of covered drugs?
  • Is there adequate access to non-clinical, disability-specific services and supports?
  • Does the plan have service limits, such as caps on the number of office visits for therapy services?
  • Are mental health services covered to the same extent that other “physical” health benefits are covered?

Where to get help?

Health insurance can be complicated. If you or your family member needs assistance with understanding the options, healthcare.gov can help. This website has information about seeking assistance in local communities, explanations of health insurance terms, enrollment information and much more. There is also a 24-hour phone line for consumer assistance at 1-800-318-2596 to call for help.

Max Goldstein: Engineering His Future

In honor of National Disability Employment Month, we interviewed Max, a member of The Arc of the Midlands. A young man with autism, Max’s passion for technology recently led him to pursue and ultimately secure a position at the technology giant Microsoft. Let’s catch up with him to see how his journey to one of the top employers in the world started as well as learn some of his secrets of success.

Max’s path to competitive, integrated employment began at The Arc, and its affiliate, The Arc of the Midlands in South Carolina. Tapping into the parent organization’s The Arc@Work IT training program, Max was quickly connected with two additional organizations: first, Specialisterne USA, the U.S-based affiliate of Specialisterne Foundation. Specialisterne USA mission is to create 100,000 jobs for people with autism in North America, and second, Provail, a Seattle-based agency that assists businesses in hiring and training qualified job seekers with disabilities. Armed with these resources, Max embarked on a hiring process that would lead to the opportunity of a lifetime. He first participated in phone interviews with The Arc of the Midlands, then completed some reading tasks from Specialisterne, and finally, submitted a short project demonstrating his programming abilities. Once this stage was completed, Max flew to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington where he participated in a two-week evaluation period. During this time, he completed short programming assignments, as well as was informally interviewed by several hiring managers. This gave Max the opportunity to showcase his skills and assess fit with various Microsoft teams.

On the last two days of the evaluation period, Max had formal interviews with two hiring managers where he fielded more technical questions. Normally, this would be followed by an additional swath of analytical problems. But, in one of the interviews, the manager voluntarily waived this additional step, explaining “…it was unnecessary…to do a whiteboard problem….as [he] had assessed [his] skills between the informal interviews and reviewing [his] coding assignment”. This manager further advised “The whiteboard problem is one of the most widely used ways to assess a software engineer’s problem-solving skills, and skipping it (especially at Microsoft’s level) was a complete shock”. Even Max’s fellow candidates were amazed!

Shortly after the conclusion of the evaluation period, Max learned that both hiring managers extended a job offer! After much consideration, he accepted the position in the Core Operating System – Windows Fundamentals Division, primarily because of his interest in operating systems development. Shortly after officially accepting, Max eagerly began the on-boarding process.

Max now spends his days coding and engaging in problem solving sessions on Microsoft products. Often, this involves a number of cross-team meetings and lengthy discussions of new features. It is these moments that excite Max the most because he loves “designing and implementing complex solutions to complex problems”. For him, it’s “like solving a puzzle”.

Max is quick to credit The Arc of the Midlands and The Arc@Work for his success in his job search. Beyond guiding him through the initial interview process, staff connected him with rehabilitation services in his new state, and provided him with various resources and training prior to his interview. When asked to advise other job-seekers with disabilities, he comments: “Persistence is the key. Keep working on and refining your strengths and unique skillsets, as you’ll improve on them a lot quicker than your weaknesses…..You’ll eventually find an organization that recognizes your abilities and will hire you.” The new Microsoft hire further implores those currently in the job market to take advantage of all the support The Arc and its chapters have to offer: “[P]lease use resources like The Arc that help people with disabilities. They are more understanding of your situation than any other group out there, and will help you with your job search and your life in general.”

Walmart’s Curbside Pick-up Program May Reduce Shopping Stress for People with I/DD

This year, Walmart rolled out a free grocery pick-up program in over 80 markets nationwide. The program, which was launched last year and has been rapidly expanding over the last few months, allows customers to do their Walmart shopping online, choose a time to pick up their orders, and pick them up at their local stores where associates will load the items into their cars. Orders can be placed up to three weeks in advance, or can be ordered and picked up the same day (if the order is placed before 10 a.m.). Personal shoppers, who actually pick out the items ordered, are trained to evaluate items like meat or produce for quality and freshness, and to look carefully for any signs that something is past its peak.

This service was primarily designed to help customers like parents of young children, who may be spending their days running to and from appointments, school, work, and other activities. For them, it’s clear why ordering groceries on the go (from a smartphone, for example) and picking them up without ever leaving the car is a big plus. But, shaving your shopping time from an hour to five minutes can benefit anyone, not just busy moms.

According to Michael Bender, EVP and Chief Operating Officer of Walmart’s Global eCommerce department, “this service may help take some of the stress out of grocery shopping for people with disabilities and their families.” Because orders can be placed online and picked up quickly and conveniently, this service will make shopping easier for caregivers or people with I/DD who have busy schedules. Furthermore, because Walmart associates can load the groceries into customers’ cars, it improves accessibility for customers with mobility limitations.

In addition to groceries, the pickup service also includes general merchandise such as pet supplies or other household items. In all, more than 30,000 items are available for online order and pickup at the same prices as in the store.

Walmart has been a longtime supporter of The Arc. In addition to consulting with The Arc about how this grocery pickup program can support people with I/DD, Walmart has partnered with The Arc in the past to provide school-to-work transition programs, grow employment for people with I/DD in the recycling industry, and support healthy food and nutrition initiatives at chapters of The Arc.

Currently, 70% of Americans live within 5 minutes of a Walmart store and 90% live within ten miles of a Walmart store. And, of the stores offering the new pickup service, 80% are within 15 minutes’ drive of a chapter of The Arc. Clients of The Arc can receive $10 off their first purchase by using the code WMTCARES during checkout. Visit walmart.com/grocery to learn more and place an order.

Stakeholders Endorse Lawsuit Challenging the GNETS Program and Hail It as the Brown VS. Board of Education for Students with Disabilities

On August 23, 2016, The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia alleging that its treatment and segregation of students with disabilities in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support Program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. For years, the Georgia Coalition for Educational Equity has been working vigorously to protect the right of students with disabilities to receive an equal education alongside their non-disabled peers. As members of the Coalition, The Arc of Georgia and The Arc of the United States strongly support this lawsuit.  Read more in the Coalition’s press release here.

Atlanta, Georgia, August 23rd — The Georgia Coalition for Educational Equality (GCEE) strongly supports today’s filing by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) of a federal lawsuit challenging the illegal segregation and unequal and inferior education provided to the thousands of students with disabilities in Georgia’s Network for Educational and Therapeutic Services (GNETS).  The GCEE is a broad coalition of disability, education, civil rights, juvenile justice, child welfare, self-advocate, and parent organizations advocating for a complete transformation of the GNETS program to provide supports to help all students succeed in their neighborhood schools.

In July 2015, DOJ found that Georgia is illegally segregating students with behavior-related disabilities in the GNETS program, where they are denied opportunities to learn with their peers who are non-disabled and provided inferior educational opportunities.  The GNETS is a statewide network created in 1970 that consists of two dozen centers serving about 5,000 children with at least $70 million in state and federal funds, plus additional locally- and federally-funded services. According to the letter, “[t]he State’s support and development of GNETS has effectively created one placement option for many students with behavior-related disabilities to the exclusion of all others.” The DOJ also found the network’s facilities to be “inferior,” often outdated, and lacking such basic infrastructure as central air conditioning, as well as educational resources such as science labs and libraries, and extracurricular facilities such as gyms and playgrounds. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s May 2016 investigation found that Georgia’s public schools assign a vastly disproportionate number of black students to “psychoeducational” programs, segregating them not just by disability but also by race. The paper found that 54 percent of students in Georgia’s psychoeducational programs are African-American, compared with 37 percent in all public schools statewide.

“The GCEE has maintained that the Justice Department’s letter of findings created an opportunity for the State to transform their education system into one that supports students in their neighborhood schools. We are disappointed that the State has opted to defend the GNETS rather than work towards the full integration of students with disabilities. The Arc Georgia fully supports this lawsuit and will continue to be involved in the GCEE coalition to ensure the state of Georgia provides a full range of supports for students with behavior-related disabilities in our neighborhood schools,” said Stacey Ramirez, the State Director of The Arc Georgia.

“While we hoped for a voluntary resolution to transform the provision of behavioral-related educational support for students with disabilities and avoid litigation, we strongly support the decision by the Department of Justice to file their lawsuit. The continued segregation of students with disabilities is a shameful and illegal position for the State of Georgia to defend,” said Leslie Lipson, an attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Office, the independent Protection and Advocacy System for people with disabilities in Georgia, a leader in the GCEE.

“Segregating students with disabilities not only is illegal but also leads to poor results,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy for the Center for Public Representation in Washington, D.C. and a leader of the GCEE.  “Georgia has a choice: engage in litigation likely to result in a court order to desegregate, or work with the Justice Department and stakeholders to develop a settlement that incorporates best practices and ends illegal and unnecessary segregation of students with disabilities.”

The GCEE hopes that this lawsuit – which seeks to vindicate the right of students with disabilities to an equal education alongside their non-disabled peers – will be the Brown v. Board of Education for Georgia’s students with disabilities.

 

The Arc’s Letter of Support for DOJ Investigation of Arnaldo Rios Case

Charles Kinsey, a direct support professional for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, was shot in a situation involving one of the individuals he served, Arnaldo Rios. Following this incident in North Miami, Florida, our network was shocked by how this situation needlessly escalated. Then the news broke that the officer involved in this shooting had the intention of shooting Mr. Rios.

In the aftermath, Mr. Rios has been institutionalized in a psychiatric unit. Below is The Arc’s letter to the Department of Justice supporting an investigation of this case. You can also read our statement here.

 

Rebecca Bond

Chief

Disability Rights Section – 1425 NYAV

Civil Rights Division

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20530

 

Re: The Arc’s Letter of Support for DOJ Investigation of Arnaldo Rios Case

Dear Disability Rights Section Chief Bond:
I am writing to offer the support of The Arc of the United States (The Arc) for a letter from Matthew Dietz, the attorney for Arnaldo Rios, calling for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the North Miami Police Department and the State of Florida.

 
Mr. Rios is an individual with autism who was recently institutionalized in a psychiatric unit following the police’s shooting of his behavioral therapist, Charles Kinsey. Following the shooting, the representative for the officer involved stated to the media that the intention was not to shoot Mr. Kinsey, but to shoot Mr. Rios. Mr. Dietz’s letter, attached here for your reference, calls for the Department of Justice to open an investigation of the North Miami Police Department for its actions and statements involving Mr. Rios and Mr. Kinsey as well as the State of Florida for its failure to provide appropriate community placement to Mr. Rios following the incident. The Arc strongly agrees that such an investigation is necessary and warranted.

 
With nearly 700 state and local chapters nationwide, The Arc is the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and their families. The Arc promotes and protects the civil and human rights of people with I/DD and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes. Through our National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability, we seek to build the capacity of the criminal justice system to respond to gaps in existing services for people with I/DD, ensure appropriate accommodations are provided via the Americans with Disabilities Act, and provide necessary trainings for law enforcement, attorneys, and judges on how to recognize various intellectual and developmental disabilities and how to appropriately interact with individuals with such disabilities.

 
When individuals with I/DD become involved in the criminal justice system as victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants, or incarcerated individuals, they face fear, prejudice, and lack of understanding. As was apparent in this case, law enforcement personnel often lack accurate and appropriate knowledge to apply standards of due process in a manner that provides justice for individuals with I/DD. In addition to improving the quality and prevalence of police training, The Arc supports a community-based crisis management system model, which includes time-based protocols for in-home responses and options for acute placement and is proven to reduce critical incidents, failed placements, and re-admission to psychiatric facilities for community-based clients.
Further, The Arc’s position, strongly supported by Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), is that individuals with I/DD deserve the opportunity for a full life in their community where they can live, learn, work, and socialize. To achieve this goal, they need a comprehensive, person-centered and directed, national system of appropriate high quality long-term supports and services, with a reliable and immediately accessible funding source, including Medicaid, and a well-trained, fairly compensated workforce of providers and direct support professionals. The prevalence of people waiting for services and supports is an unacceptable national crisis. It is not only a choice but also a basic civil right that individuals have adequate and appropriate supports and services needed for them to live in the community. Services must be delivered promptly in the most integrated setting and with sufficient quality and quantity to meet individual needs.

 
Neither Mr. Rios nor Mr. Kinsey did anything to warrant the police shooting that occurred. Thankfully, Mr. Kinsey survived the shooting and has been released from the hospital. Unfortunately, due to untreated trauma and a severe lack of appropriate community placements, Mr. Rios remains institutionalized in a psychiatric unit, isolated from the community.

 
The Arc is deeply troubled by the actions of the North Miami Police Department against Mr. Rios and Mr. Kinsey, the State of Florida’s failure to find community placements for individuals with I/DD who require intensive behavioral therapy, and its policy of reimbursing institutional placements at significantly higher rates than community placements. In light of the above, we urge the Department of Justice to investigate the actions of both the North Miami Police Department and the State of Florida in this matter. It is vital that Mr. Rios secures an appropriate community placement as soon as possible.

 

Sincerely,

 

Shira Wakschlag

Staff Attorney & Special Assistant to the CEO

The Arc of the United States

202-534-3708

Wakschlag@TheArc.org